It’s one thing to devise the perfect full-body workout under ideal circumstances, but when you’re stuck at home during the COVID-19 pandemic or cooped up in a hotel room on your travels, staying in shape gets a little trickier. We reached out to fitness professionals—including top personal trainers from Daily Burn and Equinox, technique-driven martial artists, and a seasoned wellness writer—and boiled their suggestions down to the best tips for maintaining strength, flexibility, stamina, and coordination in tight spaces with little or no equipment.
“It’s easy to lose motivation and stop training during this lockdown,” says Phil Cruz, the cofounder of Unlimited Martial Arts in Brooklyn, New York, who has been leading classes on Zoom with his cofounder, Anthony Fontana, since mid-March. “But if you keep training on your own, it will be much easier to get back to your routine when things start to open up again.”
If a dedicated workout routine isn’t in the cards for you, one of the pros we spoke with has some creative solutions, too. “I have a small beach cottage and not a ton of space to work out,” says fitness and wellness writer Dominique Astorino. “I like to incorporate exercises into daily activities—squats while I brush my teeth, barre leg lifts while I do the dishes, planks or clamshells while watching a TV show, etcetera. This keeps me active throughout the day if I don’t have the energy, focus, or motivation to do a full-on workout.”
Read on to learn how to make the most of your movements, no matter when you’re fitting them in.
Indoor cardio workouts often evoke images of treadmills, standing bicycles, and other bulky equipment. These tools can be useful, but in reality, all you need to work up a sweat is your own body weight. “One of the best ways to get in a great cardio workout in a small space is with basic athletic calisthenics,” says Phoenix Carnevale, a media personality and personal trainer featured on Daily Burn, a streaming fitness subscription that offers both live and pre-recorded classes. Simple exercises such as these activate your core and major muscle groups, helping you feel the burn in a shorter period of time:
- Jumping jacks
- High knees
- Mountain climbers
- Squat jumps
One way to approach bodyweight cardio is by repping out these exercises with no breaks until the end of the set. For instance, if you defined a set as 30 jumping jacks, 30 mountain climbers, and 30 burpees, you would perform all three movements back to back, take a 30-second breather, then start the next set.
Another way is to do fewer, slower movements—for example, only doing five step-out squats, five push-ups, and five leg lifts in a set, but spending 10 to 30 seconds on each rep to intensify the burn and increasing the rest time between exercises. Todd Anderson, a Tier X coach at Equinox, points out that “controlled movements with limited rest can have a huge ROI with little risk or impact on the joints,” so if you have a bad back or weak knees, the slow and steady route is safer and more sustainable for your fitness.
The most accurate way to track your cardio workout at home is to check your heart rate with a Fitbit, smart watch, chest strap, or arm band. Carnevale recommends working between 60 to 85 percent of your maximum heart rate. The Mayo Clinic suggests calculating maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220: “For example, if you’re 45 years old, subtract 45 from 220 to get a maximum heart rate of 175. This is the average maximum number of times your heart should beat per minute during exercise.”
Just as important as a cardio routine is strength training regimen, which has benefits that extend far beyond killer biceps and brawn. “Strength training is important to maintain muscle mass, increase metabolism, reduce pain, improve posture and muscle imbalance, and reduce the risk of osteoporosis,” says Carnevale.
Just like cardio, it turns out you don’t need much fitness equipment to build and maintain strength. “Control over bodyweight is ideal when you’re indoors,” says Fontana, who recently adapted his strength conditioning classes at Unlimited Martial Arts for Zoom. “The key is repetition. Start with doing 3 sets of 10 push-ups, and then move on to squats and lunges. Eventually you’ll want to get up to 10 sets of 10.” Carnevale suggests full-body exercises that focus on core activation, which burns more calories overall. A few examples:
- Lunges that are followed by a single-leg raise
- Push-ups that transition into a side plank
- Squats that end with squat jumps
Anderson advises changing up the speed of your reps to maximize results. “Manipulating tempos and speeds of exercises can completely change the stimulus placed on the body,” he says.
Carnevale’s secret weapon: resistance bands (both the loop and tube varieties), not only for their versatility but also because they don’t take up much space. “Never take a good resistance band for granted,” she says. “Many packages come with interchangeable sets so as you progress, you can use a heavier loaded band. And it’ll take up less space in your bag than a folded shirt.”
Flexibility is one of the more commonly overlooked components of an overall fitness plan. But, according to Carnevale, a muscle’s limited ability to stretch creates posture imbalances and can even lead to injury, making flexibility work especially important.
“Allowing yourself time to stretch and release something that is tense increases not only performance, but it also reduces repetitive stress injuries and pain,” she says.
Luckily, flexibility is easy to incorporate into your overall routine. “We think of flexibility training as ‘stretching,’” says Anderson, but “there are many ways beyond stretching to increase flexibility.”
Anderson suggests focusing on achieving full range of motion during a particular strength training exercise. In other words, when you’re working on squats, move as deeply into the squat as your body will let you in order to reach for the edges of your own flexibility limitations.
Another way to work flexibility into a busy schedule, according to Astorino, is to punctuate your day with a few basic yoga poses—either between work tasks, or while waiting to, say, take cookies out of the oven. One such pose is the roll-down: “While standing, sweep your arms up overhead, tuck the chin, and slowly roll down vertebrae by vertebrae,” she says. “Hang there for a bit to give your back and spine some love.” Astorino has been working more on hip-opening exercises during the lockdown, like pigeon pose and legs up the wall—both of which are “great for when you’ve been sitting forever.”
Find fun ways to implement techniques
While cardio, strength, and flexibility routines have countless benefits, a fun way to embrace a lot of these principles simultaneously is to combine physical skill with a personal passion—be it dancing, boxing, or even rowing. And a silver lining to the pandemic is the proliferation of online classes offering new skills to homebound people around the world.
Anderson is a rower and has been using his own time in quarantine to improve his skills through online training with his coach. “Find someone who knows the foundation of a sport or skill set and learn the right way,” he says. “Luckily, in this day and age, we are able to connect through video chat and different apps.”
Many institutions have opened up their classes to the digital world for the first time. Unlimited Martial Arts, located in the hip Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, has adapted its entire school into a virtual classroom teaching classes on boxing, Muay Thai, capoeira, weapons training, and strength conditioning. The school even expanded to include yoga, Gyrokinesis, salsa, and meditation.
“It was an exciting experiment to see how far we can push the arts we do in an online class setting,” says Cruz. “We review different combinations that can be done in shadowboxing. We also find new ways to work timing, which is important to fighting technique, such as having the instructor attack with a punch or kick toward the screen, and having the students respond with the proper defense against the attack.”
For those who are still less confident about their technique, whether it’s salsa dancing or shadowboxing, Fontana suggests people record themselves—but to also use time in isolation to improvise and freestyle the techniques they’re learning on their own.
“Shadowboxing is moving meditation, just like other art forms,” he says. “You have us as coaches, and now you’re learning to take the floor. Go beyond listening to the teacher and curriculums. This is your time to be creative with what you know.”